Stuff We Love: The goodness in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Contributed by
Mar 28, 2018

If there was ever any doubt that science fiction could travel in the highest of literary circles, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road should forever quiet such murmurs. It is, quite simply, one of the most powerful stories ever written, sci-fi or otherwise. They don’t just hand Pulitzer Prizes out to any old post-apocalyptic tale, after all. 

Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel is so terrifyingly real it makes John Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen seem like a comedy. The book subtly imagines the aftermath of an unnamed apocalypse through the eyes of a man and his young boy, travelling a long and desolate road against dangerous odds, across the ashes of America, bound for the hope of the sea. 

McCarthy’s sparse prose recounts the duo’s haunting and heartbreaking journey in such a way that you’re forced to live it; your body aches from laboring along the dire pavement; your stomach hurts from the hunger that drives people to cannibalism; your heart yearns for the survival of man’s inherent goodness, that’s every bit as vital as the evil that compels it to be.

Granted, you really have to look deep within to find the message of hope that lingers under this bleak and desolate tale. McCarthy’s follow-up to No Country for Old Men — the basis for the Cohen brother’s 2007 Best Picture winner, which was originally written as a screenplay and resulted in far leaner prose than we’d grown accustomed to seeing from 40 previous years of professional output — built upon that minimalistic style, and refined it even more, making every last word essential.   

I first encountered The Road and McCarthy in grad school, where my previously mentioned guru, Professor Peter Markman, led me to the book. I can only imagine what a father must feel reading it, but I had just adopted a dog, and the many miles my boy and I walked that semester resonated with the perils of The Road, and cemented in us a bond that has transcended every other relationship I’ve ever known (apologies to my wife). Sure, a lot of that has to do with how special my dog is, but I also credit McCarthy's story with helping me to see how self-sacrifice for the prosperity of another creature is the highest form of goodness. And so I carry with me The Light that father and son alludes to in The Road, forever more.